“SHEPARD SHOCK“: The First International Sam Shepard Conference
On the second day of the international conference on Sam Shepard held in Brussels May 28-30, one critic made an extremely authoritative reference to "Shepard's cultural moment, 1979-86," which prompted another to wonder aloud, "Are we dancing around the grave?" It was a measure of the insecurity, if not downright foolishness, felt by the fifteen Americans who joined another thirtysomething European critics, professors, students, and theater practitioners for a weekend of academic discourse about Sam Shepard. In Brussels, of all places! At a time when Shepard's media star is in retrograde -- his latest play, States of Shock, got dismissive reviews when it opened in New York, and his latest film, Silent Tongue, is still begging for a distributor after a lukewarm reception at Sundance -- the idea of a Shepard symposium sponsored by a Belgian university sounded a little ridiculous. Some of us joked in advance about Shepard as the new version of Jerry Lewis or Mickey Rourke, marginal American pop figures elevated to cult status by European cineastes. Making the whole enterprise more comically pathetic was the fact that a hotel conference room the size of an average university classroom could house the entire "Shepard industry," as one participant dubbed the convergence of writers and scholars who'd staked some portion of their careers on their personal, professional, and/or published connections to Shepard. To me, it felt less like an industry than a coven, passionate initiates gathered in some esoteric location "between the worlds" to exchange magic words.

But as Johan Callens, the bright-eyed young president of the Belgian Luxembourg American Studies Association, which sponsored the conference, said in his introductory paper, "The critic who thinks it is ironical that the first major conference on such an eminently American playwright should be organized in Brussels, displays a proprietary reflex." Callens made the case that "most of the participants are after all academics, whose ways of communicating through e-mail, books and specialized journals distributed all over the world render geography irrelevant." And he proposed the title of the conference -- "Between the Margin and the Center" -- as a kind of challenge-cum-manifesto. "As Shepard shuttles between his early and late dramaturgy, between theatre and film, the private and public consciousness, so the critics should keep shifting positions to preserve their critical edge. And instead of promoting a single critical orthodoxy, the conference should juxtapose different practices for all to judge by their individual merit."

Not surprisingly, Callens assembled a roster of speakers who wouldn't necessarily hew to any party line. They ranged from Ruby Cohn, Beckett scholar and longtime doyenne of West Coast critics, to big-haired Stonybook prof Carol Rosen (whose claim to fame rests on her still-unpublished, ten-years-in-the-making Sam Shepard's Poetic Rodeo), from Barry Daniels, who edited the volume of Shepard's correspondence with Joseph Chaikin, to David Savran, the Brown University professor who made his name with a book-long study of the Wooster Group. Of the six sessions, four were moderated by Leonard Wilcox, editor of the recent anthology Rereading Shepard, and three contributors to that book (Canadian Sheila Rabillard, Gerry McCarthy from University of Birmingham in England, and Yale's David DeRose). The array of approaches to Shepard ran the gamut of contemporary critical strategies. In the course of two days, Shepard was attacked and/or defended for being political, feminist, misogynist, essentialist, aesthetically conservative, radical, traditional, original, dried up, and fertile, not to mention being "outed" as both a closet transcendentalist and a secret sadomasochist.

Given that the energy for this Shepard confab came from Europe, it was disappointing that more critics from the continent weren't invited to speak, especially since the one European presentation in Brussels was, for my money, the high point of the weekend. Discussing their production of States of Shock at Stadttheater Konstanz last March, the young director-dramaturg team of Hartmut Wickert and Alfred Nordmann not only forced those assembled (well, me, anyway) to reconsider their lowly opinions of the play but provided a valuable demonstration of German dramaturgical practices.

First laying out Shepard's own account (in an interview with Carol Rosen published in the Voice) of the play's genesis as a response to the Persian Gulf War, Wickert and Nordmann told how they had dismissed this interpretation as uninteresting to a European audience. Then they briefly summarized three other approaches they had considered that might give the play resonance for German theatergoers. "America is everywhere," for example. "Most European productions of Shepard's plays are implicitly premised on this postulate," Wickert and Nordmann explained, "certainly all those which in outward appearance differ very little from American stagings and which straightforwardly reproduce the American setting and idiom. Whether it is explicitly elaborated or not, the postulate expresses the recognition that...simply by eating hamburgers and watching Hollywood movies we are Americans already." Other statements around which a production could be built, they suggested, were "States of Shock invokes all wars at all times" and, most intriguing, "If violence is the means of proving to ourselves that we are healthy, that we are someone, that we can act again, then we should beware of the healthy."

Ultimately, Wickert and Nordmann gave themselves the challenge of incorporating these various interpretations not by expressing them directly but by rigorously exploring Shepard's concrete-theater aesthetics. That is, "by adhering to a kind of theater which does not make claims to anything that goes beyond the processes actually involved in the staging of the play and physically unfolding in the time and space shared by the actors and audience in the course of the performance." Taking inspiration from Jack Gelber's essay on Shepard called "The Playwright as Shaman," they conceived States of Shock -- ostensibly an absurdist one-act about a retired military man and a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet terrorizing an elderly couple and an inept waitress in a roadside diner -- as a shamanic session in which urgently needed healing energy arrives not as the gentle, beneficent "white light" of New Age visualizations but in the raging, disruptive form of a "monster-fascist."

Wickert and Nordmann's brilliant conception reflected a profound inquiry into shamanism. Acknowledging that shamanism is often appropriated from indigenous cultures and liberally applied to describe LSD trips or rock stars' charisma, they made it clear that they understood shamanism (based on a 1988 study by German anthropologist Alfred Stolz) as "traffic with supernatural powers for the purposes of 'preserving societal norms and values and of treating their violation on an emotional level." The Colonel (Shepard's central character played by John Malkovich in the New York production) "thus becomes a shaman who takes upon himself all that is vilified by society, violence and unruliness or disorder...and he uses all this evil matter to cast the fragmented elements of society into a closed form and to reconstitute society as a real community." Wickert and Nordmann showed on videotape the first scene from their production, which combined Bruce Naumann's video sculpture "EAT/DEATH," Edward Kienholz's Portable War Memorial, lots of music, and stylized lighting that suggested a Robert Wilson production of The Tooth of Crime.

By comparison, the American papers reflected a rather narrow frame of reference, though by academic standards many of them were pretty feisty. Susan Harris Smith, a playwright and feminist critic from the University of Pittsburgh, opened with a contentious essay titled "Trying to Like Sam Shepard, or The Emperor's New Dungarees" in homage to Eric Bentley's famous tirade against Eugene O'Neill. Smith cited the hilarious history of hand-wringing about American theater's moribundity -- almost continuous since William Dean Howells' 1886 pronouncement, "Drama is dead and should stay that way" -- and suggested that critics, "dizzy with relief," crowned first O'Neill and then Shepard as "a new American hero," for reasons having less to do with their work than with American theater's desperate need for saviors to cure its cultural inferiority complex. Surveying the Christian imagery in Shepard's work from Cowboy Mouth to The War in Heaven, Philadelphia-based critic Toby Silverman Zinman coined a phrase -- "sit-trag" -- to describe the longing for transcendence frustrated by the limits of contemporary masculine identity located not just in Buried Child but also in plays like Hurlyburly and Speed-the-Plow. David Savran provocatively linked Shepard to Robert Bly and scolded both for representing the reflexive sadomasochism of an insecure masculine culture. Although it exhibited a curious sex-negativity and oppressive political correctness (in which the epithet "essentialist" is wielded with the moral opprobrium of "baby-killer"), Savran's essay ambitiously sought to bring Shepard out of the theater and into the contemporary Freudian/feminist/ deconstructionist conversation about sexuality and gender.

If any themes emerged from the conference, sexuality and the body was certainly one of them. "The Lacanian phallus" came up in both Savran's essay and Bill Kleb's discussion of Curse of the Starving Class as a postmodern performance text. What Stanton Garner, discussing Shepard's use of animal and vegetable props, delicately referred to as "the excremental exigencies" of Curse reappeared more overtly in Carol Rosen's observation that American auditions are full of Shepard monologues: "Actors used to want to play Hamlet. Now they want to piss onstage." I did my part for the body by turning a decidedly gay-male gaze on Shepard's appearance in movies over the last decade and, in honor of Shepard's obsession with horses, by ending my talk with a burst of ecstatic dancing to a song from Patti Smith's first album. In Shepard's body of work, the plays that came up for discussion most frequently and intriguingly were the mystery plays from the '70s, especially Suicide in B-Flat and Angel City. Perhaps the increasing scholarly attention will induce American theaters to reexamine these plays, perhaps even with the creative intensity Wickert and Nordmann brought to States of Shock.

Of course, Shepard's body, both physical and literary, was best represented in Brussels by Joseph Chaikin, who performed The War in Heaven, the monologue he created with Shepard in 1984, on opening night. (Shepard and Chaikin will begin work on a new collaborative project in New York this fall.) Chaikin hung around for the rest of the conference, his angelic presence lending a kind of benediction and undeniable prestige to the proceedings. One day he pulled a handful of papers out of his shoulder bag, handed them to me, and slipped away. Among them was a very simple, two-page reminiscence of his relationship with Shepard, beginning with their first meeting over dinner with director John Stix. "It was a lovely dinner. Then Sam and I walked back to the East Village. 80 blocks. We walked and talked. I think it was nearly 30 years ago, in 1964, one year after the beginning of the Open Theater. We both felt right away that we would be friends and colleagues."

At the end of this brief memoir, Chaikin wrote, "Sam is an artist. His mind has extraordinary imagination. Sam is never sure what he will do next. But I know he will write another play, and another and another."

Village Voice, July 1993

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